“The Old Man in the Piazza”
by Salman Rushdie
from the November 23, 2020 issue of The New Yorker
I haven’t liked much of Rushdie’s work lately, but “The Old Man in the Piazza” struck me just right.
Every day, at about four o’clock in the afternoon, when the sun’s heat has begun to diminish, the old man comes into the piazza. He walks slowly, shuffling his feet, which are encased in dusty brown loafers. He is wearing, most days, a dark-blue jacket buttoned all the way up to the neck, and navy pants that fasten with a drawstring at the waist. His hair is white, and there is a beret on his head. He goes to the only café in the piazza, the Café of the Fountain, and sits on a wooden chair at a wooden table and orders a small, strong coffee. At 6 p.m., he orders a beer and a sandwich. At 8 p.m., he rises, wipes his lips, and shuffles away, presumably to his home. We do not need to know where he lives. Everything of any significance in his life has happened and will happen right here, in this little piazza.
Not a lot happens in that opening paragraph, and that’s just about the most exciting thing for me to contemplate right now: just observing a piazza and heading home after some food and drink.
Unfortunately for me, the story does not stay in this more pleasant frame. Rushdie is once again the fabulist, telling a story about how language, which he personifies as a woman, is weakened and revolts during a time when the people in the piazza refuse to speak negatively about anything. This harms language, you see? But, a few paragraphs in, language rebels and the time of the “yes” ends.
Five years passed. In the end it was our language herself who rebelled against the “yes.” She got up from the corner of the piazza where she had been meditating silently for half a decade and let out a long, piercing shrief that drove into our ears like a stiletto. It travelled everywhere, as fast as lightning travels. It contained no words. However, no sooner had it been uttered than all our words were unleashed. Words simply burst out of people and would not be held back. People felt great globs of vocabulary rising up in their throats and pushing against their teeth. The more cautious among us pressed our lips tightly together to stop the words from getting out, but the word-torrents forced our lips apart and out they came, like children released from single-sex boarding schools at the end of a long, dour semester. The words tumbled pell-mell into the piazza like girls and boys in search of happy reunions. It was a sight to see.
A new age begins: the age of argumentation.
I lost interest at this time in the fable. I’m curious if anyone else felt similar or if I was just being grumpy because I wanted a story about a man pleasantly sitting in a piazza.
What did you all think?